From the paneled pictures of your darkest dreams, this is Graphic. Every month, I’ll be telling you about the best horror in comic books, from the early days of EC Comics to the resurgence of the genre in today’s mainstream and indie publishers. So pull up your blanket, dear reader, switch on your flashlight, and turn the page…
Let’s face it, we could all use more content to binge right now. But when it comes to comics, getting into a binge-worthy series can be a daunting task. The lore of comics can get pretty deep, and if you’re a causal diver, you might avoid them for fear of drowning. That’s why, with the help of these forced nautical metaphors, I’ve put together this guide to one of my favorite, most bingeable modern comic series: Dark Horse’s Abe Sapien. You might recognize the book’s titular character from his role in Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy movies, in which he was played by the incomparable Doug Jones. However, there’s a lot more to the character than being Hellboy‘s sidekick; read on to find out.
The Dawn of (Fish) Man
The character of Abe Sapien first appeared in the journals of Hellboy creator Mike Mignola around 1993. A heroic version of the amphibious-man monster, Abe was originally meant to be part of an “occult-detective version […] of Marvel’s Fantastic Four.” However, when Mignola couldn’t choose a name for that team, which would later be called the B.P.R.D., he decided to focus more on one member, beginning the adventures of Hellboy and the franchise it spawned. In the early days of that franchise, Abe was the Robin to Hellboy‘s Batman. He would play second-fiddle to the Big Red Ape until the character left the the team in 2002, which prompted a spin-off comic simply called B.P.R.D.. Mignola’s vision of a team-focused title was realized, but Abe still had to share the spotlight with his fellow monster-hunters Liz Sherman, Roger the Homunculus, and Johann Kraus. It wasn’t until 2008 that Abe was able to spread his fins in his own, titular, solo comic book.
That’s not to say that Abe ever lacked in story in the days before his solo title. While bouncing around with his pals at the B.P.R.D. (that’s Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, by the way), Abe was slowly investigating pieces of the greatest mystery he would ever come across…his own history.
Quick note: this section contains spoilers for B.P.R.D. Vol. 3: Plague of Frogs and B.P.R.D. Vol. 4: The Dead. If you want to read the secret history of Abe Sapien yourself, check those out!
For a long time after his introduction, Abe Sapien didn’t have much of a backstory. What little backstory there was essentially went like this: In the 1970s, Abe was found in an old-timey Luke-Skywalker-tank, on which there was a note that read “Icthyo Sapien, April 16, 1865.” The attending scientists called him Abraham (after Lincoln, who was shot on that day) and decided pretty quickly to dissect him. Thankfully, Hellboy intervened, and Abe has been a working member of the B.P.R.D. ever since. According to Mike Mignola, this was enough backstory for Abe at first. However, just like Abe in that Victorian version of the clone tanks from Rick and Morty (a staple of the sci-fi genre, you see), a deeper story was waiting to be discovered.
In a subplot of B.P.R.D., we find out that Abe Sapien was not always a safe-for-work Shape of Water guy. In the mid-nineteenth century, he was a human called Langdon Everett Caul, an occultist and member of the “Oannes” secret society. Caul, along with his fellow initiates, had searched for and found a kind of god-egg, an ancient organic shell they believed to contain a deity. During a ritual in which the members attempted to “hatch” the egg, that deity took over Caul‘s body, transforming him into the lean, green, monster-hunting aquamarine he is now. Unfortunately, the society then left the body to mature and, because of the Civil War or whatever, never came back to retrieve him. Thus ended the life of Langdon Caul and began the adventures of Abraham Sapien.
That’s almost everything you need to know to begin Abe Sapien, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t prepare you for the truly stunning talent you’re about to see. Some of comicdom’s finest artists line up to put their spin on everyone’s favorite gill-man, from Mignola’s own cover art to interior work from Jason Shawn Alexander, James Harren, Patric Reynolds, Peter Snejbjerg, Max Fiumara, Sebastiàn Fiumara and so many more I don’t have the space to list. In their own unique way, each artist plunges Abe into worlds that are terrifying, beautiful, and always weird. Abe Sapien has been lucky to been brought to life over and over again, lovingly portrayed by so many different talents. Their styles may differ, but their awareness of Abe‘s character, their knowledge of and love for his strange humanity, is consistently spectacular.
Abe Sapien is defined by that strange humanity. He is a man who made himself a monster, a monster who seeks to be a man, and neither and both all at once. He’s a character with so much to explore; whether it’s his past, his nature, or as you’ll see in the comic, the very strange future awaiting him. It’s deep characters like this that make for the most satisfying binge-reading experiences, and I can think of few more worthy subjects than the lead character of Abe Sapien. Depth, after all, is kind of his thing.
You can begin Abe Sapien for free with ComiXology Unlimited. The first four volumes are free with a membership, and every one after that is half-price for all of May, perfect for bingeing on a budget. Once you’ve resurfaced from Abe Sapien‘s world, let us know what you thought of the series on our Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook pages. After that, drop me a line to let me know which other horror comics you’d like to see featured in Graphic. Then, be sure to check out all the other aquatic horror we’re featuring for this month’s theme: Enchantment Under the Sea. For all the best in horror recommendations and reviews, keep lurking at Nightmare on Film Street.